Patience seems far-flung nowadays. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to protests, COVID-19 news, and reading the latest tweets from society’s leaders. Do you know what’s missing in all of this?
Here’s the Webster’s Dictionary definition of empathy:
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Empathy is inherent in each of us. But, we can lose that feeling quickly. So, we must develop an understanding of each other in our everyday lives. Here, I’ll explain how to develop empathy and how that relates to leadership and the workplace.
Stop talking. Listen
It’s obvious when someone is not listening, and it’s disrespectful. Here are ways people choose not to listen to their conversational counterparts. They are:
- Looking around
- Looking at their watch or phone
- Preemptively reacting to the speaker (mannerisms)
- Acting disinterested
In Stephen R Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he talks about seeking to understand then try to be understood. Trying to understand first is a powerful skill to harness as a leader. How many times have leaders imposed themselves on subordinates without listening to them?
On the other hand, it’s also easy to spot someone who listens. How do you feel when you know your audience understands you?
- When your audience is using micro-expressions like head nodding to validate your comments
- When your audience responds with thoughtful questions
- When your audience responds with empathy
I mention these to build awareness about what listening looks like and what it doesn’t. There’s confusion still as communication wanes. But keep these in mind next time you’re in a conversation.
You don’t live in your reality
Self-awareness is hard to come by now. We live within ourselves and provide our echo chambers in our minds. We might exist in reality, but here’s a sobering concept.
You’re not living in your reality.
What we say and do become part of someone else’s reality. It’s our audience’s perception of us that drives the next parts of a relationship or conversation.
To provide empathy, we have to understand that it’s under their perceptions that we’re operating and not our own. Consider the following:
Susan confides in her friend, Sarah, that she and Tom just broke up. After hearing this news, Sarah says, “that’s too bad. I had a bad break up too. So you’ll be OK!”
Did Susan feel validated here? I would argue no. Instead, Sarah perceived Susan’s pain as her own instead of trying to understand Susan’s. It’ll be Susan’s perception of Sarah’s carelessness that’ll affect the future of their relationship.
Keeping this in mind will help to see employees in a different light. Instead of hearing complaints, you’ll instead listen for ways to help. There will be times when you’ll acknowledge your subordinate’s comments but cannot act on their requests. In that case, keep in mind your baseline of concern for them. You’re concerned for their well-being.
Share the burden
Sharing a burden is the heart of empathy. Your subordinates have issues but may not know how to address them. Bosses can share that burden with their employees to create a shared understanding of the load. When an employee leaves a company, the weight doesn’t change; it just shifts to another person. Only the boss can properly delegate how to distribute that load among the team.
One way to help your employee share their burden is to council with them. The Army has its leaders council their subordinates once per quarter (and more often if necessary) to talk about issues, concerns, and highlights. These create a shared understanding and load sharing if done correctly. It’s a team effort.
There is a strange and unwritten rule called social capital. It’s soft power that you use and builds up with your peers, bosses, and subordinates. You make a deposit when you’re consistent at your work, help those around you, and build others up. You make a withdrawal when you make a severe mistake that costs the team and is absent when you’re needed most.
Most of the time, as human beings, we err on the side of trust. However, there are people who overdraft on their social capital at work that prevents people from trusting them. As a leader, it’s your job to hold your employees accountable while trusting them to navigate their personal lives.
Accountability will come with your policies and procedures. Communicate with your employee about their negative behaviors rather than direct blame at them personally. Then, talk about the consequences of their actions. Empathize with them during this process. Extend understanding of their situation and how it can be improved. Remember, your loyalty is to the well-being of the team. Even when you have an employee who’s over-drafting on their social capital account, you can still deal with it tactfully. It’s one of the most challenging parts of leadership.
Change your perspective
Leadership And Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute is one of the most insightful books on how to shift a perspective. Most powerfully, the concepts in the book discuss perceptions and blame by using a metaphorical box.
When we are “in the box”, then it means that we refuse to see another’s point of view. If the boss’s perspective is the only one that matters, then why have employees? In the business world, bosses and employees must see each other while outside of their boxes. Each must lay blame to waste to accomplish their missions.
Changing a point of view is challenging. But we have to have the desire to change and have the courage to see from a different vantage point. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
Having empathy is human nature. But egoism is also human nature. Which will be the default? The learned behavior comes from the answer to that question. I hope that leaders choose to be coaches instead of authoritarian dictators.
How have you shown empathy in the workplace? What do your leaders do? Comment below. Thanks for reading!
If you want a review of the book Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, click here.